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Chapter 2. The Society and Its Environment


Traditional mask made of rope

ZAIRE'S ETHNIC DIVERSITY has frequently been stressed in discussions of its society and culture; as many as 250 different languages can be identified within its borders. But overemphasis on ethnicity would be misplaced in discussing the social realities of the 1980s and early 1990s. Zairians have shared a prolonged experience of state pauperization and oppression; the social polarization and strategies of survival that have evolved out of that experience shape them regardless of their individual ethnic identities.

Zairians have been increasingly divided into an elite class, most of whom are politically attached to the government of Mobutu Sese Seko (president, 1965- ), and the mass of peasants, workers, and low-ranking civil servants. The former have used the state to advance their economic interests, although their dependence on political favor has left them insecure. The latter have seen their standard of living drop year after year, watching while as much as half their income is taken in fees, fines, and taxes to support the state and its elite.

Zairians' response to such deprivations has been differentiated not only by class but also by factors such as rural or urban status, gender, regionalism, and ethnicity. Villagers, for example, seeing road networks and educational and medical services collapse, have responded in part by fleeing to cities, increasing the country's rate of urbanization. Women have formed new alliances in both rural and urban areas to promote their interests and resist state exactions.

Most striking has been the creativity of ordinary Zairians in constructing an economic life outside the deteriorating formal economy. A major factor in the continuing survival and political quiescence of the population in the face of their pauperization has been the growth of the informal economy, whose size, according to most analysts, exceeds that of the formal national economy.

Notable, too, is the strength of institutions outside of or on the periphery of state control. Churches have continued to grow in membership, and their extensive networks of hospitals and schools have increased in importance since the collapse of state-run medical and education institutions.

Zaire is a land of superlative natural endowments--a vast territory encompassing enormous mineral deposits, immense forests, mighty rivers, and abundant fertile soils. It is said to have sufficient arable land and hydroelectric potential to feed and power the entire African continent. This situation, in combination with its legendary mineral wealth, should have made Zaire one of sub-Saharan Africa's most developed and wealthiest states. Instead, it is a poor nation in a rich land. Its economy and society are in disarray in the early 1990s, and most of its citizens (80 percent by some accounts) live in absolute poverty.

Zaire's public health and welfare system has collapsed. Most state-run hospitals and schools have closed. Medical equipment and medicine are scarce. Blood banks have closed, blood screenings are rare, and the rate of immunization among infants and children has declined drastically. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), tuberculosis, leprosy, trypanosomiasis, and malaria are widespread problems. Malnutrition has also become increasingly prevalent, particularly among children, as the price of food exceeds the financial resources of more and more Zairians. The availability of safe drinking water also has become problematic.

The impoverishment of Zairians can be attributed in large part to the monumental corruption and institutionalized theft characterizing the Mobutu regime. Nevertheless, the country's large population (39.1 million in 1992) and chronically high population growth rate (3.3 percent in 1992) have also played a role in the deterioration of economic and social conditions, in that population growth has consistently outpaced official economic growth. Ethnic and social tensions are also on the rise, as Zairians compete for increasingly scarce resources. One serious result of this ethnic conflict is that thousands of Zairians have been displaced by ethnic violence, creating a mass of internal refugees whose needs the state will not and can not address.

Data as of December 1993

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